What is it to be an asshole?

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April 3, 2014

Assholes: A Theory

By Aaron James

Published by Doubleday

201 Pages (plus Appendix), $25.95

Reviewed by Michael Luis 

We’ve all experienced the wrath of assholes, whether this is every day at work, at home, or—perhaps most commonly—in traffic. In Assholes: A Theory, American philosopher Aaron James contends that “asshole” is more than just an insult for an unpleasant person, but a specific type of human being indelibly ingrained into our society.

James is an associate professor of philosophy at The University of California, Irvine and is known for his book Fairness in Practice: A Social Contract for a Global Economy. He holds a PhD form Harvard, and like many of us, has presumably dealt with a lot of assholes.

Right away Assholes establishes its mission statement: “What is it to be an asshole? The answer is not obvious, despite the fact that we are often stuck dealing with people for whom there is no better name. (pg. 2)” This question is examined, and inevitably answered over the book’s seven chapters which feature such titles as “Newer Asshole Styles” and “Asshole Management.”

James applies his experience in both moral and political philosophy to dissect the asshole. I found the former style of philosophy to be the most engaging and interesting. Though I have very limited experience in academic philosophy, I was still able to relate to James’s musings, as I’ve had many run-ins with assholes and found it interesting to look at their make-up from an intellectual perspective. Explorations such as the difference between assholes and psychopaths (pg. 53) and the way we will cuss the word “asshole” even when the asshole can’t hear us (like in traffic) piqued my interest and answered questions I already had going into the book (pg. 127).

The book is also splashed with humour. The part in the second chapter “Naming Names,” where James shows us different types of assholes using relevant pop-culture examples, had me smirking as I flipped the pages. Richard Dawkins is the quintessential “smug asshole” for example; “He writes cocksurely that the views of millions of reasonable and intelligent people have no merit whatsoever… (pg. 40)” Rush Limbaugh and Oasis’s Noel Gallagher are “boorish assholes,” yet Winston Churchill is “boorish, but not quite an asshole. (pg. 47)”

However, this humour almost ends up being the book’s downfall. Assholes is trapped in a strange scenario: the way it examines a brash term with an academic tone could be mistaken for satire; however, the book ultimately ends as a solid moral and political philosophy book with some colourful language. I made this mistake initially, and it took me a little while to realize my misinterpretation and regroup.

I also struggled when the book shifted from moral to political. The political sections felt forced, like James was trying to apply the asshole sheen to the other end of his expertise. The examples within the “Asshole Capitalism” chapter were significantly less concrete than the book’s earlier portions, and were very hard to grasp for a casual plebe like myself with a very limited knowledge of political science (pg. 153). However, I was able to understand his sections on “royal assholes” and “presidential assholes” which combined the political with moral examples such as former American vice-president Dick Cheney (pg. 58).

Though Assholes: A Theory is accessible enough for a philosophy newbie like myself to gain knowledge and entertainment from certain sections, ultimately, this book would be better appreciated in the hands of a philosophy student or enthusiast. I can firmly say this is a much nicer summary than “Fuck this book. I’m better than it.”

As I just learned from James, that’s something an asshole would say.

Michael Luis is a Victoria student, writer, filmmaker, and musician. Check him out at www.michaelacluis.wordpress.com.

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